In previous articles we have considered what St. Joseph may have thought when he learned of the conception of the Christ Child and also have compared the evidence from Sts. Matthew and Luke to attempt to create a harmony of the events from the betrothal of St. Joseph and the Virgin through the finding of Jesus in the Temple, our purpose in the current article is to elaborate an additional point which was already covered briefly – Was St. Joseph present at the Visitation?
After briefly establishing the relevant points made from the previous articles, we will consider the arguments in favor of St. Joseph’s presence followed by those opposed to it. In so doing we do not attempt to establish dogma or come to absolute certainty, rather we only desire to gain some understanding of the historical reality of the Visitation of the Mother of God to St. Elizabeth. Certainly, a careful consideration of the Gospel text, together with the tradition of the Fathers and Doctors, will be of great aid to us as we make a meditation upon this mystery. Specifically, we recall that imaginative prayer (especially, that which is in the Ignatian tradition) is deeply rooted in the historical circumstances and details of the mystery – one simply cannot effectively engage this event in imaginative mental prayer without considering whether or not St. Joseph was present.
A proposed chronology of the events
In the earlier articles, I have argued that the Virgin Mary was betrothed to St. Joseph before the Annunciation, and that St. Joseph was not present when St. Gabriel came to the Mother of God. Rather, it seems most likely, that St. Joseph did not know of the mystery of the Incarnation until the angel Gabriel revealed it to him in a dream. At some point (and the exact timing of this event will be central to our current article), St. Joseph noticed that our Lady was with child. It seems more likely that the Just Man did not understand the mystery at once, but was very much confused (not that he suspected Mary of sin, but he did not know what to think). It was at this time that the angel came and instructed St. Joseph that he should take Mary into his home and accept her as his wife.
For our purposes in this article, the central question of chronology is whether St. Joseph’s dream of the angel occurred before or after the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. If we accept the opinion of several Fathers and Doctors (including Sts. Augustine and Justin Martyr), it seems that St. Joseph recognized that Mary was with child simply by witnessing the obvious fact that she was several months pregnant – this is the opinion adopted by Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide. In this case, it would seem that the crisis and the angelic dream-vision came after the Virgin Mary had visited St. Elizabeth. After remaining with her kinswoman for about three months (as St. Luke relates), the Virgin would begin to show the signs of pregnancy. At this time, it would seem that St. Joseph noticed her state and rationally concluded that she was with child.
[Obviously, there is great diversity among Father, Doctors, saints, and theologians on this point. I am simply presenting what seems to me to be the most likely case, based especially on the scholarship of Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide (who is certainly a trustworthy source)]
Was St. Joseph present at the Annunciation?
From the text of St. Matthew’s Gospel, it is quite certain that St. Joseph was not present at the Annunciation which St. Gabriel made to the Virgin. It is only after our Lady has conceived that St. Joseph recognizes that she is with child, and it seems that he does not fully understand how this had come about. This confusion, and also this delay in recognizing the pregnancy, can only be explained if St. Joseph was not present at the Annunciation – if he had heard the angel Gabriel’s words, it is hard to understand why he would have needed the further revelation given in the dream. Why would St. Joseph need the Angel to tell him almost the exact same thing twice? Therefore, it seems most likely that St. Joseph was not present at the Annunciation.
It was during the Annunciation that St. Gabriel told the Virgin Mother of the conception of St. John the Baptist. Immediately after this, the Mother of God made haste to the hill country to visit St. Elizabeth – traveling from Nazareth (which is in Galilee, in the north) to Ein Karem (near Jerusalem, to the south), a distance of some ninety miles by road.
Now, if St. Joseph only recognized the Virgin Mother’s pregnancy after she returned from the Visitation (that is, about three months after the Annunciation), it would seem that St. Joseph was not with the Mother of God while she remained with St. Elizabeth for those months. This would lead us to think that St. Joseph was not present at the Visitation.
Arguments in favor of St. Joseph’s presence at the Visitation
What is probably the strongest argument to show that St. Joseph accompanied the Virgin Mary in the Visitation is that the distance traveled was quite extensive and would have to be done not merely once but twice (there and back again). Considering that the Virgin Mary was probably a young girl at the time of the Annunciation and that St. Joseph was very much given as her protector, it seems likely that the Just Man would accompany the Virgin in this journey. And, if he accompanied her on the way to Ein Karem (where St. Elizabeth lived) and on her return to Nazareth, it seems quite logical to presume that he was with her at the Visitation.
Additionally, we point to the fact that many theologians (including St. Basil, Origen, Theophylact, and others), together with numerous mystics (I have heard that these include St. Bridget of Sweden and others), have presumed that St. Joseph was present at the Visitation – though there is certainly nothing close to unanimity on the issue.
Arguments against St. Joseph’s presence at the Visitation
The principle argument against St. Joseph’s presence at the Visitation, one which I think carries the day, is that it is almost impossible to explain how St. Joseph could have been confused when he found that the Virgin Mary was with child, if he was present at the Visitation.
Assuming (as I have argued) that the dream-vision from the Angel occurred at some point after the Visitation (about three months after the Incarnation itself), it seems highly unlikely that St. Joseph was present at the Visitation. St. Elizabeth said to the Virgin Mary, and whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Luke 1:43) If St. Joseph heard these words, it is hard to understand why he needed St. Gabriel’s instruction, Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost (Matthew 1:20).
If we grant that St. Joseph found the Virgin Mary to be with child by noticing her physical enlargement, then we must hold that the angelic dream of the Just Man occurred after the Virgin’s return from the Visitation. But, if the dream came after St. Elizabeth’s very clear words which proclaim Mary to be blessed among women and the mother of my Lord, it is almost certain that St. Joseph did not hear these words and, therefore, was not present at the Visitation.
On St. Joseph’s role in protecting the Virgin in her travels
In reply to the above argument in favor of St. Joseph’s presence at the Visitation, based on the fact that it seems that he would have been with the Virgin when she travelled this great distance from Nazareth to Ein Karem, we make two points.
First, given that the two were not yet wed, but were only betrothed (even granting that betrothal was something much stronger and more binding at that time), it seems unlikely that St. Joseph would have been so familiar with the Virgin as to travel alone with her. Indeed, we know that he had not yet taken her into his home, since they were not yet married (though it is true that, after the betrothal, Mary was called his wife; yet, they did not live together). It seems unlikely that St. Joseph would expose the Virgin to scandal by traveling with her in that journey to Ein Karem – if they were not yet married, it does not seem that he should have been alone with her and this is all the more true of traveling alone!
Second, while St. Joseph was the protector and guarding of the Madonna and Child, he did not fully step into this role until the wedding, when he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took unto him his wife (Matthew 1:24). Hence, if the marriage occurred at least three months after the Annunciation, that is, sometime after the Visitation, we need not presume that St. Joseph would have accompanied the Blessed Mother in her travels to Ein Karem. Moreover, there were certainly other family members who could have accompanied Mary in her journey.
Certainly, there is much room for diversity of opinion in this matter. Many saints come down on both sides. However, we have attempted to lay out at least something of an answer. Hopefully, this reflection will serve to better aid us all in mediating upon this mystery. Whatever we think about the presence of St. Joseph at the Visitation, I pray that the contemplation of many of the issues raised in this article will provide the devout soul with some insight into the most chaste relationship of the Virgin and the Just Man.